The striking parallels between adopters’ experiences today and 150 years ago

Sally Donovan finds adopters' support experiences have been almost Dickensian, but reports the future is looking much brighter

Last week, the children’s minister announced the launch of the prototype Adoption Support Fund. The scheme will be piloted in ten local authorities – Manchester, Newcastle, North Yorkshire, Solihull, Leicester, Hampshire, Gloucestershire, Cornwall, East Sussex and Lewisham – giving adopters in these authorities the opportunity to apply for money, which they can use to source support.

I sit on the Department for Education (DfE) Expert Advisory Group (EAG) as an adopter, alongside representatives from adoption agencies and charities, mental health, local authorities and professional bodies.

We are all tasked with assisting the DfE in the development of the Adoption Support Fund. The task has been a challenging one – to design a means of delivering appropriate therapeutic support to adoptive families, when they need it, with the minimum of bureaucracy and within a challenging budget. If you know anything about the current state of affairs you will appreciate this is very far from where we are now.

One hundred and fifty years ago in his large novel ‘Little Dorritt’, Charles Dickens somehow managed to nail the experience of adopters trying to gain access to support for their families.

‘Boards sat upon them, secretaries minuted upon them, commissioners gabbled about them, clerks registered, entered,
checked, and ticked them off, and they melted away. In short, all
 the business of the country went through the Circumlocution Office, except the business that never came out of it; and its name was 

The Circumlocution Office would be proud of a set up where adoptive families have a right to an assessment of their needs, but no right to access the support identified in that assessment. Often ‘Nobody’ has the budget with which to buy the specified support and so there are clear incentives to fob people off and wear them down until they ‘melt away’.

The UK National Health Service apparently has one medically qualified mental health practitioner per 30,000 children. In France they have one per 7,000. There is evidence that as demand for mental health services has risen and resources have fallen children have to get sicker and sicker before they ‘qualify’ for help. Behind the often unintended failings of the crap-eaucrasy are real people.

From where I sit, providing good, timely, warm therapeutic support to children and families who feel the chill winds of past neglect and abuse is a no brainer, morally, socially and economically. It particularly makes sense at a time when the government is working hard to recruit more adopters and when most prospective adopters are savvy enough to know that adopted children do not arrive ‘fresh out of the box’.

As a sales message, ‘you may not struggle, but if you do the support will be there’ has to be more effective than ‘good luck and goodbye’.

The £19.3m that has been put into the Adoption Support Fund to kick-start it isn’t (you won’t be surprised to learn) going to cure the crap-eaucrasy, but it has the potential to make a significant difference to children who have had a rough start in life and for whom adoption is not the damp cloth which wipes the slate clean.

As the adopter on the EAG, I’ve thought long and hard about whether this personal budget type approach will deliver what is needed. Will it improve the lives of families, such as those who took part in Professor Julie Selwyn’s research ‘Beyond the Order’? Will it prevent families feeling forced to accept inappropriate interventions?

Will it improve the knowledge base amongst professionals of trauma and attachment? Will it facilitate early intervention? Will it increase the chances of a ‘hard to place’ children being placed? I think the answers to all these questions are ‘yes, but’.

It’s going to take time and work to really test and stretch the pilot scheme and more money and long-term commitment from current and future government to fix some of the structural failings that the support fund can’t hope to touch.

There have been many concerns expressed about whether personal budgets will work for adoptive families. Are they informed enough to know what therapeutic support they need? Will they buy stupid solutions from ‘crackpot’ providers? (I have to stifle a laugh whenever this one is rolled out.) Are there sufficient providers in the market to satisfy the increase in demand? Are there providers in all areas of the country? Will cash-strapped local authorities be incentivised to drop the support they already provide in the hope that the fund will fill the gap? The fund has been developed with these questions in mind.

When I was invited to the DfE to sit on the EAG I expected it to feel a bit like Dickens’ Circumlocution Office, but it has been a long way from that. You may want me to report that the DfE are ill-informed, unrealistic, a bit rubbish but they are not. I’ve witnessed a pragmatic desire to ‘cut through the crap’ and to provide meaningful change in the support experienced by adoptive families.

I’ve been invited to ‘tell it as it really is’, and I have. Many adopters engaged with me through social media and helped me think my way through the complexity that is adoption support. I’m sure even more are ready to take part in and inform the scheme.

The DfE could have flirted with spending the little money it has trying to fix everything, but it would have been spent quickly with little if any resultant benefit. I’m certain of that. It would also not have given adoptive families any more control than they have now.

The prototype scheme won’t be perfect, there will be wrinkles and hold ups and frustrations but I hope that adoptive families in need of therapeutic support approach the scheme and report on their experiences such that the scheme can be adjusted and improved before the roll out across England in May 2015.

The vision of the EAG is that the fund will ‘transform attitudes to adoption support and how it is practised’. My own personal vision is this and more; that all children and young people in need of therapeutic support feel the benefit of that transformation, particularly those who don’t have others navigating the meandering corridors of the Circumlocution Office on their behalf.

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One Response to The striking parallels between adopters’ experiences today and 150 years ago

  1. Jenni Randall July 4, 2014 at 12:44 pm #

    Good article. Sadly I fear it will be another vote catching initiative which will be spread too thinly, spent on increasing bureaucracy and in development and not reach those who really need hands on practical therapeutic support. But I guess its a start.